Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Blistering Barnacles, your Holiness!

In the midst of this week's financial Sturm und Drang, a surreal note was added by the official Vatican newspaper's ringing endorsement of Tintin as a 'Catholic hero'.

'Tintin is a Western knight of modern times, an unstained heart in an invulnerable body... Tintin is now all alone in initiating children into the values of chivalry.'

It's quite a publicity coup for the film that has had at least one die-hard fan frothing at the mouth; the Guardian's critic left the cinema 'too stunned and sickened to speak' at the violence perpetrated on his childhood favourite.

He is, however, something of a lone voice crying in a wilderness of merchandise, promotional tie-ins and media hype designed to bring to a wider British audience a character whose adventures have hitherto been largely confined to the bookcases of the francophile middle class.

This has opened a festering can of worms in the form of the reporter's earlier adventures - and in particular 'Tintin in the Congo'. For many years this book was unavailable in the UK - now, with massive sales expected on the back of the film, the publishers have issued the entire canon, leaving retailers with something of a problem.

Like an elderly uncle with embarrassing racist views, this book needs close supervision in the company of the impressionable young; it has thus been banished to the top shelf and forced to wear a sash proclaiming that it reflects the 'colonial attitudes of the time' and the 'stereotypes of the period which some people may find offensive'.

This is a red rag to the bull of L'Osservatore; 'can the book really perturb the young Britons of today, who live off the internet, video games and fish and chips ?'

The answer is, almost certainly, a resounding 'no', because it's doubtful that many will actually read it; have you tried to get the average child to read a book recently - even a comic-strip one? They're far more likely to immerse themselves in the Tintin console games - when they're not glued to the X-factor or facebook.

I suspect that the vast majority of people reading 'Tintin in the Congo' this week are journalists, activists and the professionally offended - and I wish them joy of it. Actually, as I remember from reading it long ago in France, the story's pretty weak - Herge didn't really get into his narrative stride until 'King Ottakar's Sceptre', eight years later.

As Herge matured - 'Tintin in the Congo' was, after all the unaided work of a 22-year-old - his hero metamorphosed into the character the Vatican praises, assisting left-wing rebels in South America, defending natives against colonial oppression and risking his life to rescue a Chinese friend.

And I'd love to see what the Daily Mail makes of 'The Castafiore Emerald', in which Tintin meets a group of gypsies forced by the authorities to camp at a rubbish tip and offers them free use of the meadow at the Captain's stately home, later defending them when they are unjustly suspected of theft.

But amid all the fuss over racist portrayal of the Congolese, something arguably more sinister has escaped notice. None of the recent articles deploring Herge's racist depiction of Africans has mentioned that there are some decidedly unflattering portrayals of Jewish bankers and financiers in the books - take a look, for example, at the sinister Bohlwinkel in 'The Shooting Star' (1942).

In the original version the character was a New York financier named Blumenstein; a subsequent revision relocated him to a fictitious country but could not eliminate the stereotypical caricature of the illustration - potentially as offensive, one might think, as the large-lipped African natives.

Although Herge later explicitly expressed regret about some of the opinions he held in his youth, the illustrations remain. It's an interesting lesson in victim hierarchy and the changing fashions of political correctness - and it raises some difficult questions in the Vatican's readiness to claim Tintin as a Catholic hero and a role model.

By bizarre coincidence for fans of the genre, Asterix has surfaced today in a fine post by Pavlov's Cat.


  1. "It's an interesting lesson in victim hierarchy and the changing fashions of political correctness"

    It is and presumably they will change again. How annoying for future generations of oldies when they spent so much effort on current fashions.

  2. "...it's doubtful that many will actually read it; have you tried to get the average child to read a book recently..."

    So much for JK Rowling 'changing the face of children's literature forever', then...?

  3. I have to confess to never reading a Tintin book

    But this equating or judging previous works /actions my modern mores is one that gets my goat.

    Everyone of these people should have the words
    "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
    tattooed in reverse on their foreheads so they see it every time they look in a mirror

    ta for the linkage pal.

    Now I must kick the huskeys awake and travel north once more

  4. Wise words, AKH!

    JuliaM, the trouble with Rowling - in my admittedly rather biased opinion - is that her books are the literary equivalent of fast food; so easy and intellectually undemanding that, while avid fans will consume amd collect them happily, they are unwilling to apply themselves to more complex fare.
    (Besides, she's never acknowledged all the ideas she so obviously lifted from Alan Garner, Stuart MacDonald and a host of others - if she had, it might have helped her readers go on to better things.)

    PC, it's never too late to start! Don't bother with the pre-1938 ones, though - except for historical interest. The best ones are those where Herge borrowed heavily from authors like Buchan and Rider Haggard - themselves unpopular these days with the PC brigade, of course - though you have to be prepared for a certain willing suspension of disbelief.